I live in Toronto, one of the most culturally and sexually diverse cities in the world. Home to one of the planet’s largest pride celebrations and arguably Canada’s most prominent gay community.
And I’m here to tell you that, even here in Toronto, homophobia is alive and well.
For most of my life, I had never known homophobia. How could I have? Until 27, I was a “straight” white woman who had only dated cis men. I could walk down the street holding hands with my partner, and most people would nod at us, smile, or ignore us altogether.
No one showed rage or discomfort at our presence. At least, not in response to our presumed sexual orientation.
Sure, sometimes we’d get a look or a scoff for what I’m assuming was our general appearance as two stereotypical, middle-class white people. But I had never experienced discrimination. I had never been looked at as less than by other members of my city.
From my lens as a straight, cis woman, homophobia did not exist here.
I personally didn’t care about other people’s sexual orientation. I lived in the Village, for Christ’s sake — a gay-celebrating, rainbow-covered, smut-pandering microcosm that spanned several city blocks.
How could homophobia exist in such a blatantly gay-loving community?
Now, of course I know that statement to be naive.
I started to feel it quite soon after dating my first girlfriend.
It felt like the world had shifted around me. In fact, nothing had changed; the world was simply responding to me in my new role, the way it always had. But I was no longer straight.
Some of it was subtle or, at least, harmless.
A woman stopping to talk while I waited for my girlfriend outside the grocery store. Asking about my “boyfriend” and, upon seeing a woman come out of the store, saying, “you must be this young lady’s friend,” seemingly choosing to believe I was straight.
A middle-aged man shaking his head at us as he passed.
A colleague being unable to refer to my girlfriend as, well, my girlfriend.
But some of it wasn’t so subtle.
A man sitting on a busy downtown sidewalk, yelling slurs at us, graphically describing what lesbian sex must be like, to the embarrassment of us and those around us.
A man yelling at my girlfriend and I at Yonge-Dundas square from atop a speaker, microphone in one hand and a bible in the other, telling us we were “going to hell.”
A man walking in front of us, turning around multiple times to glare, before finally slowing down and spitting several times just centimeters from my body.
Sometimes I felt it from the types of folks who, only a year before, had been kind to me as I walked with my boyfriend. Had smiled at me. Had said hello to me.
And it hurt.
How could these seemingly kind, welcoming people suddenly find me…vile?
It felt that some of them were personally offended that a straight-looking woman like me would have the audacity to be gay. This felt like a double-edged sword: some part of me wanted to rely on my passability; I wanted to pretend I hadn’t changed, that I was still straight, so I’d see the elderly woman who reminded me of my grandmother smile at me again.
Of course, my privilege of being able to “pass” — and exploiting that privilege — also made me feel a sense of shame. That I was hiding my sexual identity from parts of the world in order to get ahead, to be accepted, to avoid discrimination.
But it wasn’t always this harmless, hurtful encounter from people who could have been my grandmother. At times I encountered people for whom it felt was deeper than that. A hate so strong and volatile I could almost see it emanating from them.
Mostly, these were the ones who yelled at us. Who spit at us. Who told us we were going to hell.
Sometimes it would happen in the presence of someone else, who would give us a timid, apologetic smile or even apologize on behalf of the perpetrator. We would always make light of it, as if our skin was so thick we didn’t hear them calling to us.
But we did hear it. Of course we did. And sometimes it even scared me.
There were times when the words were aggressive, when the stares felt like a threat. When the rage was so palpable I would feel my heart start to race.
And it was those times I was grateful for my partner, who is much more of a fighter than me. Because in those times, the blood would drain to my toes, and I would be unable to do anything but wait for them to pass.
When I first told my girlfriend about my recent introduction to homophobic behaviour, she was quiet.
“People aren’t homophobic,” she said finally. “Are they?”
I recounted some of the experiences we’d had over the past week. She continued to look at me. “I guess so,” she finally said.
I told her that, when I had dated men, I’d never had an experience like any of these before. And she gawked at me. “Really?” she asked.
I nodded. She sat back, thinking. She had never dated a man openly like I had.
In some ways, I was glad my partner was so immune to the yells, the names, the displays of aggression or hate that she didn’t even notice it.
But in some ways, I was sad, too: it had been such a staple in her reality that she just assumed that everyone shared her lived experience, to some degree.
And that’s the thing about lived experience. Whether you experience racism, discrimination, or you’re a wealthy white man at the top of your class: your experience is the only one you’ve had.
And pretty soon we start seeing the world as if it just is that way. And if it’s that way for us, it must be that way for everyone.
Toeing the line between dating men and women has allowed me to see both sides.
I suppose I hope I can apply that same lens to other forms of inequity or discrimination. Ones I can’t possibly be privy to, like Black or Asian hate; like transphobia; like ableist behaviour.
But I also hope that we can believe people when they say they’ve experienced injustice. Because trust me…it isn’t usually visible from the outside. And I say this knowing I also come from a place of privilege. I’m a white, able-bodied woman with a university education. The level of discrimination I face is paltry to what I know it is for many, many others.
Yet, I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt, homophobia exists. And trusting our fellow peers, wanting better for them, is the only way I see forward.